More musings about white Rioja

IMG_0107-rev_editMy good friend and fellow Rioja lover Adrian Murcia, whose blog Blame it on Rioja (http://www.blameitonrioja.com) is one of my favorites, recently wrote a comment about my post on white Rioja that reminded me of several anecdotes from my time as an export director in Rioja.  Every month or so I would call our distributors around the world to get a personal take on shipments and depletions of our brands and because most of our sales were in northern Europe (the UK, Germany, Holland and the Scandinavian markets), a drop in sales of red during the summer was invariably blamed on unusually warm weather, when shipments of white and rosé would spike upwards.  This was not usually the case, as summer in northern Europe is generally referred to as “Yes, I remember, last year it was on July 18!” But as soon as the temperature went up, sales of red went down. In perpetually hot climates, the situation is hopeless.  Once I was having lunch with our distributor in the Dominican Republic and commented that it was a shame that so little wine was served at the other tables.  My distributor, one of the country’s largest rum distillers, said that it was just too hot and humid to drink red wine, a fact that certainly helped sales of his rum!    Although my boss was never outwardly too sympathetic about my comments (after all, he was THE BOSS), he undoubtedly understood the problem of drinking red wine in hot weather.  As a matter of fact, one of the main reasons why Spain’s per capita wine consumption was never as high as in Italy or France was because from July through September here, it was, and is,  just too hot to drink red.  White was for wimps, so Spaniards asked for a glass of really cold beer. I admit that I do it myself.

Well, white is no longer for wimps, but sales of red Rioja always slide in the summertime.  Given that in our major markets, consumption of white is almost as high as that of red, wouldn’t it be nice if Rioja had a really first class white to sustain sales during the summer months?  Fortunately for Rioja in the UK, most of the beer is served at room temperature, so a good crisp white Rioja would be a hit!

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White Rioja at the crossroads

Copia de viuraracimoYou’re in a bar in Rioja and ask for a glass of white wine.  The bartender asks you if you want Rueda or Rioja, something analogous to being offered a glass of Burgundy in Bordeaux. This sums up the current state of affairs with white Rioja – it’s getting harder to find and is being overtaken by whites from other Spanish regions such as Rueda and Rías Baixas.

White Rioja has had its ups and downs the last 25 years. It was traditionally made like red Rioja, aged for years in small barrels.  Viña Tondonia is about the only remaining example of this style.  In the early 1980s technology allowed a crisp, fresh and fruity style to emerge, with the juice vinified at low temperature in stainless steel tanks.  This style was successful for a few years until the arrival of chardonnay-based whites from Australia, Chile and California took Rioja’s international markets by storm.  Then in the 1990s, Riojans began to produce barrel fermented whites.

Sadly, none of these three styles have proven successful against the verdejo and sauvignon blanc whites from Rueda and the albariño-based whites from Rías Baixas.  As a matter of fact, Marqués de Riscal, one of Rioja’s best-known wineries, had such little faith in white Rioja that they built a winery in Rueda and literally reinvented the  appellation of origin there.

What’s wrong with viura, Rioja’s most widely planted white variety?  I think there are several problems.  First of all, in traditional Rioja, some viura was vinified with the red varieties in Rioja to add acidity.  With the advent of a more modern style, this practice was not continued, so the demand for viura dropped to the point where it wasn’t allowed to plant viura in Rioja.  Secondly, the tropical fruit aromas of the verdejo and sauvignon blanc varieties from Rueda and the albariño from Rías Baixas seem to be more popular with consumers than the citrusy, green apple notes of cold fermented viura. Thirdly, the rules allow higher yields for viura (9,000 kg per hectare compared whith 6,500 kg/hectare for red varieties and growers tend to push yields to the legal limit, a practice not conducive to quality.

The Rioja Regulatory Council dropped the ball in this matter, spending much too long trying to reconcile the position of the farmers, reluctant to see their 5,000 hectares (12,350 acres) of viura lose value if more popular white varieties  were planted, and the wineries, eager to capitalize on the boom in sales of white wines in major markets.  In the middle were a group of wineries that wanted Rioja to replant local red varieties on the verge of extinction, using this as a bargaining chip.  In the meantime, other Spanish regions captured the market for white Rioja.

As with many political decisions, a compromise was reached that in my opinion, doesn’t completely satisfy anyone.  The decision was that ‘international’ white varieties (sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and verdejo) as well as rare local white varieties (turruntés, white tempranillo and white maturana) can be planted as well as the rare local red varieties maturana tinta and maturana parda.

The catch is that the ‘international’ varieties have to be blended with at least 51% viura while the  local varieties can stand alone. Rumor has it that most of the new plantings will be verdejo and the problem I see  is whether a viura and verdejo blend in Rioja will be better than the  very ordinary viura+verdejo from Rueda, sold at a discount to the highly popular 100% verdejo and sauvignon blanc styles there.

As with most topics related to wine in Rioja, an intense debate is taking place about this decision, with the traditionalists at one extreme, led by López de Heredia, defending viura, and the avant-garde on the other, wishing that experiments should be allowed with any and all varietals to see if they work in Rioja.

Only time will tell if the decision proves to be correct, but until the new varieties come on stream, try the following white Riojas that I like:

  • Viña Tondonia white  (viura and malvasía).  The quintessential traditional white Rioja. The current vintage is 1991!
  • Finca Allende white (viura and malvasía).  A modern white that shows low-yielding viura at its best.
  • El Coto de Rioja white.  100% viura.  Clean, fresh, crisp and affordable.
  • Muga barrel-fermented white.  In my opinion, the best of the barrel fermented white Riojas. The oak/fruit balance is superb.
  • Remelluri white.  A blend of experimental whites from  the Rhone and Burgundy including roussane, marsanne and viognier as well as traditional varieties from Rioja.

White tempranillo – an interesting addition to Rioja varieties

IMG_0773_editSummer has arrived with a vengeance – well over 100ºF yesterday with no relief in sight.  Spain is a funny place to live – we spend nine months complaining about how much we look forward to warm weather and as soon as it arrives we start complaining about it.  To get back to the point:  with this weather, no one is thinking about red wine, but rather a cool glass or two of white.  Yesterday we decided to try a bottle of white tempranillo Rioja made at the agricultural research station near Logroño – a gift from a friend who helped me at the wine and coffee tasting (see the previous post).

White tempranillo is a mutation of the red variety and is one of the new white varietals recently approved by the Rioja Regulatory Council.  More on that controversial decision in a future post.  The government of La Rioja had been experimenting with this varietal for some time so I was anxious to try it.

The guy who had given me the bottle happens to be the head of the vineyard registry department at the government agricultural office so he knew all about how the grapes had been vinified.  They made 10,000 liters from the 2007 vintage and as an experiment, put about 700 liters in small acacia barrels, then put that wine back with the rest.  This turned out to improve the wine’s aging capability.   Using this kind of wood to make a barrel in itself was intriguing, because I had heard of American, French, Slovenian, Russian, Hungarian, Mongolian and even Spanish oak barrels, but barrels from the acacia tree??  There must be an acacia forest somewhere in the mountains here – I’ll have to check it out.

The wine was surprisingly tasty:  straw yellow color, a nose that combined citrus, butter and dried apricots which reminded me a little of viognier if it weren’t for the citrus.  It had a medium mouthfeel, and tasted  citrusy with apricots along with a little black licorice.

We drank it with some perch fillets lightly fried with a flour and egg batter.  As an American born near one of the Great Lakes, raised on fresh water fish, I naturally ate the perch with some tartar sauce, which always makes my wife cringe (she’s right, but you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!  At least I’m not like my brother who puts lemon juice on scrambled eggs!)  I have to admit that in this case, she was right to be critical because the tartar sauce gave the wine a metallic taste.  Luckily we had drunk over half the bottle of wine in the kitchen while making dinner so we were able to appreciate it in its natural state!

I’m happy that this grape variety can now be planted in Rioja and hope its attractive aroma and taste profile will convince growers to plant it instead of the ubiquitous chardonnay.  Want to learn more about this controversy?  Stay tuned for the next post, which I will write from Pamplona where I’ll be spending nine days for the festival of San Fermín.  My uninhibited mood will definitely show up in the post!